30 June 2009 1 Comment

Poets central to Palestinian culture

My favorite Palestinian poet is Taha Muhammad Ali, a quietly bumbling presence when he reads his poems, but a deceptively intelligent writer. The warmth and intelligence of Taha’s readings drove Adina Hoffman, a Jerusalem-based writer, to plan a biography of the poet (“My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century”, published this April by Yale University Press). Only then did she discover that, despite all the ink spilled on the Palestinian issue over the years, no one had ever written a biography of any Palestinian poet.

So she expanded the book. Using Taha as the central figure, she constructed the intersecting life stories of writers as diverse as Mahmoud Darwish, the “national” poet whose death last year prompted weepy editorials around the world, and Rashid Hussein, the most original and tortured of them, who died alone and drunk in New York 30 years ago.

Hoffman’s book is a way for readers to get around the usual stereotypes of the Palestinians as they’re portrayed in the cliches of their political struggle. She looks at the fascinating day to day, emotional history of this troubled people as told through their dynamic poetic culture.

Here’s a brief interview with Hoffman I conducted last week:

Matt: Did it surprise you there was no biography of any Palestinian poet?

Adina: It did surprise me, but then again maybe it shouldn’t be so startling. I write in the book about the various challenges of composing the biography of a Palestinian subject—and high on that list is the lack of a Palestinian archive, or archives. Many of the writers (Taha Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Darwish included) come from peasant backgrounds, and that peasant culture relied on the oral rather than the written record. And the little that may have been written down was destroyed in 1948. So I had to rely on a combination of interviews and British and Israeli archives (which were essential to my work, though the perspective presented there is obviously not Palestinian), as well as photos and books on a hundred different related subjects.

So it is, in a way, a luxurious genre: you can’t just pick up a pen and paper and write a biography like this. You need to have access to these archives and books and photographs as well as access to various interview subjects. A writer sitting in Beirut or even Nablus would have a harder time simply getting to these sources—whether because of checkpoints and borders or because the Israelis might not let them in. Meanwhile, those who might have access to the archives might not have the various languages required to make sense of them, or the desire to write about Palestinian culture… and so on and on.

Matt: With my Palestinian crime novels, I’ve tried to write about the real Palestinians as I’ve come to know them over the years, rather than the stereotypes with which they’re portrayed in journalism. Were you trying to do something similar?

Adina: I do agree that one can get a different idea of Palestinians as people through the history of their poets. First of all, because poetry and poets occupy such an essential role in Palestinian society: throughout much of the last century, poetry has served as one of the most important means of political and social expression for the Palestinian people—and the poets who’ve given voice to that impulse are central to the culture. But I was also interested in writing about the world that surrounded these poets and that inspired them to write. In Taha’s case, much of his poetry is grounded in his village, Saffuriyya, which was destroyed in 1948. The whole first part of my book is devoted to trying to conjure that village on the page. It’s not just about the destruction of that village, in other words; it’s also about the very rich and complicated life that existed there before ’48.

So much of the news coverage of the Palestinian “story” winds up treating them as a monolithic, basically faceless group—whether a group of terrorists or a group of downtrodden victims. I wanted to offer a view of Palestinian life that depicted as precisely and deeply as possible the full human range of feeling and complexity that exist in that culture, as in any culture. To put it more simply, I didn’t treat the Palestinians in my book as representatives of anything but themselves, as a group of individual human beings.

Matt: Anyone who’s written about the Palestinians knows that it can be a minefield, particularly when you face the public on a book tour. You’ve been in the US recently to promote “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.” What kind of response do you find there?

Adina: Apart from one or two predictable knee-jerk responses, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the openness of readers to the book. People seem quite eager to read about Palestinian life and culture in a way that gets past the standard version that’s put forth in the media. And on top of that, I think they’re just drawn to the incredible poignancy and richness of Taha’s story—and the story of so many of the people his life has intersected with over the years.

One Response to “Poets central to Palestinian culture”

  1. Meredith Miller 30 November 2009 at 9:28 am #

    I work for an independent distributor of social and political issue documentaries. I came across your blog and thought you and your readers might be interested in our recent release – a DVD set of two films about Edward Said. OUT OF PLACE, a biography of Said which celebrates his intellectual legacy through interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues; and THE LAST INTERVIEW, filmed in the last year of his life in which he reminisces about his childhood, his political involvement, and his passion for music.
    As an independent company with limited resources, we are reaching out to organizations such as yours to help spread the word about this wonderful set of documentaries. It would be wonderful if you could post information about the film on your blog, or send it to any relevant listservs.
    For more information about the film, please visit our website http://homevideo.icarusfilms.com/new2009/said2.shtml
    Thank you.
    Meredith Miller
    Icarus Films

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